Into the Wilderness
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Mark 1:1-8
In last Sunday’s gospel Jesus responded to his disciples’ being impressed by the permanence evidenced in the massive stonework that defined the Temple’s structure, by saying, “In those days. the sun will be darkened, the moon will no longer give its light, stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”
He invited them to see the Temple and its destruction as a metaphor for the temples or structures, myths and stories of our personal and communal lives and their vulnerability. You know, what we tell ourselves about ourselves, our relationships, our families, our communities, our world and, yes, even our God. The rhetorical structures or words we use to hold our view of how we see and hold the reality of each of these things in our consciousness.
The First Sunday of Advent begins with an ending. It is not the end of the world or the end of life. It is, rather, an ending of all those temples or stories upon which we depend. All those events and experiences that have shaped and continue to form who we are, how we are, and the ways in which we see and relate to God, the world, each other, and ourselves.
Our stories do for us what the Temple did for the people of Jesus’ day. They give meaning, identity, direction and security. Sometimes our stories no longer support our lives. Instead of growing our lives they stunt our growth.
It’s not that they are necessarily bad or wrong, though some surely are, it’s just that we need a different story, a bigger story, a life-giving story, and perhaps a more honest story. That means we must let go of our story so that a new story can be told, a new life can be lived, a new structure can be revealed, and “the one who is more powerful” can come to us.
The deconstruction of our reality can be painful. Most of us hold our stories pretty tightly even when they are no longer helpful and sometimes, in spite of the harm they cause us. We cling to our stories believing that any story is better than no story. You know, “This is my story, and I am sticking to it”. In the southern states there is the hard to kill story of Confederate pride. In the nation, at large, there is the story of white supremacy and the myth of equal opportunity.
Letting go of our stories is what today’s gospel calls “preparing the way of the Lord.” It’s the way by which we reorient our lives to “the one who is more powerful.”
If last week’s gospel revealed Advent to be a season of necessary endings, then this week’s gospel reveals Advent to be a season of time in the wilderness. It’s not by accident that today’s gospel takes us to the wilderness. This movement from an ending to the wilderness reflects the reality of our lives. It is a sequence we know well.
Whenever I have accepted an ending of one of my stories, I ended up in the wilderness. I felt overwhelmed and lost, vulnerable and at risk, afraid, angry and resentful. The old story had ended, and the new story was not yet clear. I was in that in-between space waiting to see what might be. This certainly was my experience when I moved from the Roman Church to the Episcopal Church. Or when I moved from identifying myself as a straight man to owning my identity as a gay man. Whether or not I knew it, I was waiting for “the one who is more powerful.” I am in the wilderness right now in terms of my health. I no longer breathe as I once did. I wait for “the one who is more powerful”.
I suspect each one of us could tell about a time in the wilderness. I’ve watched some of you move to the wilderness when one of your stories ended. I’ve heard it in your questions. I’ve seen it in your tears. I’ve felt your fear. I’ve echoed your cry for comfort and your longing to hear some good news.
Think about your own stories – the ones that have ended or the ones that are ending – and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. The most significant changes and transitions in our lives lead us to the wilderness. As difficult as the wilderness may be, it is the place in which we “prepare the way of the Lord”.
After the Israelites left Egypt they went to the wilderness. It was their preparation for entering the promised land. After Jesus was baptized, he went to the wilderness. It was his preparation for his public ministry. And in today’s gospel John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness helping “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” prepare for the coming of “the one who is more powerful.” That’s what time in the wilderness does. It prepares the way of the Lord.
Time in the wilderness, it seems, is the norm for God’s people. Wilderness time does not make “the one who is more powerful” show up. It ensures that when he does show up, we will be there, we will be ready, and that we will have shown up.
The wilderness I’m talking about is not the geography around us but the geography within us. It is an interior landscape. There is nowhere to hide in the wilderness. There are no illusions or distractions. The wilderness strips us of all pretense, and we are left to face up to ourselves, to examine our hearts, and confess the truth about our lives.
This wilderness isn’t so much a place of exile or punishment as it is a place of self-discovery. We discover that we can no longer live by our own self-sufficiency. That doesn’t mean we are deficient or insufficient. It means there is more to life and more to us than what our own self-sufficiency can give.
Many of our stories have, however, convinced us that we are or should be self-sufficient. The wilderness always proves otherwise. In the wilderness we ultimately discover that we are in need and that we have nowhere else to turn but to “the one who is more powerful.” It reveals our lack of self-sufficiency.
Maybe that’s why John the Baptizer is our wilderness guide. Maybe that’s why he is called the Forerunner of Christ. Maybe that’s why he is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John knows what he is talking about. Look at him – clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and honey. That’s more than a description of his wardrobe and diet. It reveals John’s interior condition, the state of his heart. It shows him to be one who has let go of all pretense, preoccupations, and accumulations. He knows his own lack of self-sufficiency and entrusts it to “the one who is more powerful.” So much so that he declares himself unworthy to even untie Christ’s sandals.
The lack of self-sufficiency revealed by the wilderness opens our minds to a larger story, opens our heart to a new life, and turns our gaze to “the one who is coming”. It frees us of pretense, preoccupations, and the accumulations of life that weigh us down. It restores to us the original beauty of our creation and creates space and place for “the one who is coming”.
Today’s gospel begs us to ask the question, “Where have I become overly self-sufficient? What might a lack of self-sufficiency look like in my life? What does letting go of pretense, preoccupation, and accumulations mean? Maybe we begin to get at this by looking at the ways we or try to live self-sufficient lives”?
Here’s what I am wondering.
- I wonder if our self-sufficiency is sometimes disguised as busyness, calendars that have no free space, never ending to do lists, and the exhaustion that permeates so many of our lives.
- I wonder if our self-sufficiency is revealed in the comparisons and competition that often hide in our relationships and interactions with each other.
- I wonder if self-sufficiency is at the core of many of the judgments we make about others.
- I wonder if the unending search for approval, recognition, and accomplishment is driven by a temple story of self-sufficiency.
- I wonder if some of our fears, worries, anxieties, and anger come when we think our self-sufficiency is being threatened.
- I wonder if the many expectations we place on ourselves and others about how our life should be begins in an attitude of self-sufficiency.
I’m not suggesting that we are helpless. We’re not. We have resources and abilities. However, to the degree we live overly self-sufficient lives we close ourselves off. We isolate. We declare the way of the Lord to be a closed road. Maybe the greatest tragedy is that when we live from a place of self-sufficiency, we make ourselves the more powerful one and we have no need for each other or for Christ, the one who is coming. Maybe our self-sufficiency is really the only thing that ever keeps Christ from coming to us.
Let’s not leave here today as self-sufficient as we came. What if we were to trust the wilderness of Advent? What if we were to begin to live from a place that owns our lack of self-sufficiency? And what if we were to entrust that lack of self-sufficiency to Christ? That just might be for us the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We would discover that our lives are sufficient for God. We would know ourselves to be God-sufficient rather than self-sufficient people.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
December 6, 2020